Preserving Jamaica’s Artistic Heritage

canopy figure
Jamaican Taino – Figure with canopy (facing left) © The Trustees of the British Museum

This post is adapted from the paper I have recently presented at the “Regional Workshop on the Conventions on the Illicit trafficking of Cultural Objects”, which was hosted by the Jamaican Ministry of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport. This workshop was held at the Jamaica Pegasus, from March 2-5, 2020. Among the topics for discussion were: Jamaica’s restitution claims, the steps required for Jamaica to become signatory to the relevant treaties and conventions, international best practices, and measures to mitigate the illicit trade and any other inappropriate or undesirable export of cultural goods. These measures include the proposed establishment of a Register of Significant Cultural Goods which would be subject to certain restrictions with regards to trade and export.

In my presentation, I moved away from customary focus on antiquities in discussions on illicit trade and restitution, and focused instead on modern and even contemporary art. You may ask, why bring up contemporary art in such a discussion, as this is a field where cultural and market values are still being negotiated? History has shown us that this may happen very quickly and that a lot of what has been lost in terms of already recognized cultural heritage occurred because its value was not recognized in its own time and the necessary steps were not taken to protect it then. Discussions about cultural heritage preservation cannot neglect the present or, for that matter, the future. It must be informed by a keen eye on changing cultural dynamics and new developments in creative production, so that wise, well-informed decisions are made about what will be the Significant Cultural Objects of the future.

My focus in this paper is on the issues that surround private art collecting in Jamaica, and some of the activities, services and problems that surround it, particularly the fraught dynamic between private art collecting and public cultural preservation. While most of our discussion in the MCGES workshop was, by virtue of its focus on international conventions and treaties, concerned with cross-border transactions, I spoke mainly about domestic dynamics. My position is that we cannot discuss legal and policy frameworks, restitution issues, and ethical standards with regards to the international trade in cultural property, without considering the problems that occur on the domestic level, as the two are deeply connected. Given certain recent events and developments here in Jamaica, and elsewhere in the Caribbean, there is some urgency there.

A significant part of the problem in the Jamaican context, and in much of the rest of the Caribbean, stems from the informality of the local art market, of which a significant part is entirely off the record and undocumented. This means that much of the trade in art falls outside of the tax net, which is an issue in and of itself, but the secrecy that surrounds the art market in Jamaica also means that proof of ownership is often lacking and that it is very difficult to establish and document provenance, let alone to keep any tabs on how Jamaican art circulates locally or in the international market. This lack of transparency leads to the potential loss of important works of art for Jamaican public collections and makes ventures that may help to mitigate any illicit international trade, such as the proposed Registry of Significant Cultural Objects, very difficult to implement.

Needless to say, this informality also opens the door wide for all sorts of other art market problems, such as art theft and forgeries, and also facilitates the potential involvement of money laundering activities. While the latter is hard to substantiate, it is well documented that art theft has occurred on a number of occasions in Jamaica in the last two decades. It has involved the theft of work by certain well-recognized, up-market artists, in heists that were obviously carefully planned and deliberately targeted, but also more random and pedestrian motivations, such as the scrap metal trade. Forgeries have in recent years also occurred with some frequency in Jamaica, although it is not clear whether they originate locally or are created elsewhere – I suspect that it is a combination of both. From what I have seen recently I have good reason to believe that high quality forgeries of the work of certain major Jamaican artists are again circulating, locally and potentially also internationally. If there is no practice of producing and expecting proper provenance documentation, such fraud becomes a lot easier and is much harder to control.

None of this is in the interest of the preservation, reputation, and good management of Jamaica’s cultural heritage, of course, or of the general health and welfare of its art world. There is an urgent need for formalization, documentation, and judicious regulation of the local art market, without lapsing into prohibitive over-regulation, as well as education about why sensible documentation is beneficial. Artists, for instance, often resist the notion that they, too, might have to pay taxes but fail to understand that it is much harder to insist on intellectual property benefits, such as resale royalties, if first sales are not on the record. Art collectors, on the other hand, typically take the view that their holdings are a strictly private matter and that making such holdings available in the public domain is discretionary. That their holdings may be part of the collective cultural property of Jamaica is only rarely a consideration – there is a difference between moral or cultural and legal rights here, but both matter.

Ironically, it is impossible to sell any real estate or even the cheapest, most run-down second-hand car without a proper title, and these are mechanisms that are quite well-regulated in Jamaica, but works of art that sell for prices that may rival those of the country’s omnipresent luxury cars change hands without any documentation of the transaction or the new ownership – it is privileged knowledge to those few who might know, which is not good enough for art works of significant importance. It might be helpful to introduce a formal titling system for duly authenticated art works over a certain value, without which no property transfers could take place, and that such titled art works should also be subject to the sort of export permitting similar to what for instance exists in Cuba and other countries that take their cultural heritage seriously, with a provision for a right of first refusal for the relevant public collecting institutions in the case of permanent exports.

Belisario - Koo Koo Actor-Boy
Isaac Mendez Belisario – Koo-Koo, or Actor Boy, from Sketches of Character, 1837-38

As Kevin Farmer, Deputy Director of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, pointed out in the workshop, the Barbados National Gallery Act, which provides the legal foundation for the establishment of such an institution, includes a provision to control the export of Bajan art. Unlike Barbados, and the other countries that have such institutions in the region, however, Jamaica has no National Gallery Act – the National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ) falls under the general provisions of the Institute of Jamaica (IoJ) Act, in which the NGJ is not even mentioned and its functions only most vaguely outlined. There is no provision in the IoJ Act for any controls on the export and local private sale of Jamaican art, for the preservation of significant art works, of the work by a particular artist, of particular categories of art, or of private collections that may be of national import (or for any other cultural objects, for that matter). For now, such powers reside solely with the JNHT, which is preoccupied mainly with monuments, sites, and archaeological artifacts, and only theoretically with the visual arts.

Legal reform is surely needed to address these gaps, whether this is through the JNHT, the IoJ or a proper NGJ act, which is the route I would prefer, as I believe that a specialized approach is needed for the visual arts, as this involves (or should involve!) specialized skill sets. The NGJ is in fact the only such institution in the Caribbean region that is not supported by its own statute and, in my view, this anomaly should have been corrected years ago, as it is detrimental to the institution and its governance, and potentially, even its long-term survival. The institution can cease to exist, or be merged with another museum, with the proverbial stroke of the pen – an earlier post on this subject can be found here.

The informality of the local art market is also a major problem for NGJ acquisitions, although the majority of these have in recent years been from living artists. The ICOM Code of Ethics provides quite clear guidance on the standards that are applicable to museum acquisitions, in terms of the need for title, but it is difficult to enforce this in a context where provenance and ownership documentation are more often than not non-existent. The lack of transparency and any specialized regulatory framework in the Jamaican art market also has other consequences and there is a difficult subject I need to broach here: namely the conflicts that arise from the way in which the NGJ has been interacting with private collectors, which goes well beyond the normal practice of cultivating good relationships with collectors for loans and as potential donors.

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Provocations: Navigating The Creative Industries

Charlie Chaplin in Moscow
Still from Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” (1936)

This is the first of a new series of shorter critical interventions on salient issues. The posts will pose questions, rather than to attempt to provide answers, and they are meant to be conversation starters, and comments are welcomed, as usual.

There have been a lot of conversations here in the Caribbean, of late, on Covid-19 and the Cultural Industries, most of them online of course, making use of the dreaded Zoom or other online communication platforms. It is, as such, heartening that there is a fair amount of engagement with how the cultural sector is affected by the cultural crisis, and also that funds are being made available for various remedial projects, from local governmental and non-governmental sources as well as international funders.

Observing some of these events has, however, also been very troubling, for a number of reasons. One is that only very few have involved actual practicing artists (visual, performing, or literary – a broad and diverse group that also includes film and design) and that the discussion has been articulated, led and, indeed, dominated by policy makers, consultants, entrepreneurs, and academics in the field. The other, related concern is that it has illustrated the insufficiently questioned, but deeply entrenched focus on the Cultural Industries, at the expense of more nuanced and contextualized discussions about culture, the arts and artistic practice, which appear to have become marginalized and even ignored in the Cultural Industries debate. And that may well come from not giving sufficient voice to those who are directly involved in and knowledgeable about artistic practice, including those who operate at grassroots level, which has led for such discussions to become woefully disconnected from what should by their foundation, anchor and primary point of reference. This disconnect was certainly evident in a recent discussion on the affiliated term Creatives, on the Critical.Caribbean.Art Facebook site, where a majority of artists expressed reservations about being so labelled and pointedly objected to the “flattening” homogenization of the cultural field this involved.

I will not go into the details of how the Cultural and Creative Industries, and the Cultural and Creative Economies, are variously defined, and the shifts in meaning that occur between these terms — that has already been covered extensively by many others. But it behooves us to remember that the term was introduced by Adorno and Horkheimer in the context of a deep and concerned critique of mass popular culture as propaganda and of the role of these Cultural Industries in Monopoly Capitalism. In its present incarnations, the term and its spin-offs are rooted in the ethos of Neo-liberalism and increasingly, there is a very reductive conflation the monetization and commodification of culture as the primary manner in which cultural production is validated and supported. I prefer the term Creative or Cultural Ecology, as it is a more inclusive terms that de-emphasizes monetization as a primary goal, without disregarding it, and leaves room for and validates a variety of cultural and artistic practices that may not be motivated by profit or entrepreneurship.

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A Note on Art Appraisals

Image result for Stock images art auctions

People approach me all the time with requests for appraisals of works of art. While it is clear that the demand is present here in Jamaica, and that I could perhaps make a pretty penny if I would offer such services, I am reluctant to do so for two reasons. One is that I am more comfortable working on the non-profit, academic side of the art world and do not generally involve myself in the art market. The other is my discomfort with the lack of professional standards and accreditation mechanisms in the field of art appraisals in Jamaica. Although there are persons who do such work with great diligence and integrity, I often see and hear things that make my toes curl.

Let me first clarify what an appraisal is, since many in the local art world conflate it with a valuation, although the latter is of course the most common part of it. Appraisals may involve other considerations, such as ascribing a work of art to a particular artist, place of origin, and period, or ruling out forgeries (and art forgeries do occur in the Caribbean). Appraisals may also involve the production of condition reports, although these are often better done by a professional conservator; provenance documentation; and assessments of an art work or collection’s quality and significance. Appraisals and valuations are done for different purposes, for instance to determine the fair market value in the case of a sale between willing parties; for insurance, estate or taxation matters; or in any other case where such a professional opinion is needed.

The international standard is that appraisals should be conducted in an ethical and professional, manner, by persons who are appropriately qualified and accredited, and the processes involved must be transparent, verifiable, independent, and knowledgeable. The valuation part provides an informed estimate of the art work’s value for the purpose that this estimate this is needed – the valuation for an auction may be different, for instance, from the one for an insurance claim. The key point with regards to valuations and authentications is, however, that these should not be pulled out of a hat, represent wishful thinking, or worse, amount to an unethical attempt at influencing the market, in favour of the appraiser or a third party affiliated with the appraiser. The article linked here provides a quite thorough overview of standards that apply in the US context and what appraisals may be used for.

As a general rule, art appraisals are done by experienced art historians or other persons with advanced and verifiable qualifications in the field. Since appraisals require specialist knowledge, it is expected that the appraiser will have the appropriate specialist scholarship and experience on the sort of art to be appraised: a specialist in, say, Italian Renaissance art would not have much to say about the work of a Jamaican painter from the 1930s or 40s; nor would a specialist in Jamaican art be called upon to appraise, say, a work from the Russian Avant-garde. In-depth knowledge is also required of the market(s) in which a work of art may appear, and the valuation part of an appraisal is also contextual: a Jamaican painting may have a different market value in the Jamaican context than in, say, in Canada. The findings presented in an appraisal of a particular work of art may also change over time, as new information and authentication technologies become available, and as market dynamics change. And ultimately, no matter how diligent the appraiser is with his/her research and evaluation, an appraisal remains, in most cases, an informed opinion, based on rather subjective factors. It is necessary to keep in mind that art values are among the most subjective of all property values.

File:Leonardo da Vinci or Boltraffio (attrib) Salvator Mundi circa 1500.jpg
Salvator Mundi

The attribution of Salvator Mundi, which some authorities have claimed is by Leonardo da Vinci himself and which consequently sold at auction for a record US$ 400 million in 2017, is an example of how widely those opinions can diverge. The painting’s authenticity has been repeatedly challenged and is presently once again in doubt. And the recent controversy that the work may have been for  sale when it was exhibited at the National Gallery in London in 2011, as a confirmed work by da Vinci, illustrates why public museums ought to stay away from actions that may influence the art market, as its critics imply that this powerful but perhaps ill-advised endorsement, by means of its inclusion a major museum exhibition, would have influenced its market value inappropriately.

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Some Reflections on Petrona Morrison’s “New Works” Exhibition

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Installation view of Petrona Morrison’s New Works (2019), with the installation Archives in the back

Some works of art reveal their content easily. Others challenge the viewer, and sometimes also the artist, to the point of resisting explanation. This is not a popular approach these days, in a context where easy artistic legibility is promoted by some, populistically, as a necessary condition for democratizing the arts, and artistic opacity dismissed as elitist and undesirable. There however needs to be room in art for the poetic and political implications of opacity, as this is, for many reasons, fertile artistic territory. In fact, sometimes it is art’s very point.

The body of work presented in Petrona Morrison’s current exhibition, New Works, does not read easily, at least not at first sight.  Having spent some time engaging with visitors, at the opening and in the exhibition since then, I can see that some are non-plussed at first. It does not help that the exhibition consists of work created and produced in digital media, and mounted without the usual legitimizing trappings, such as picture frames. Or that it furthermore involves photographs produced by the artist as well as found images and objects, as these challenge common notions of exclusive artistic authorship. Or, even, that there is no price list.

Mapping 1
Petrona Morrison – Cross-section IV (from the Mapping series), 2017

The latter is worth noting because to many in the Jamaican context, an art exhibition is first and foremost a sale, and art is validated primarily by its standing in the art market. The Petrona Morrison exhibition was deliberately not conceived as a sale; it is first and foremost an exhibition, as a way of displaying and sharing with various audiences a cohesive and immersive body of work, as a communicative act. It is not that there is anything inherently wrong with selling art, or with producing and promoting it for sale, but it is problematic and very reductive when serving as a luxury commodity becomes art’s sole purpose, and its primary method of consumption and validation. There must be room for other approaches, and alternative artistic economies, if we are to have a healthy, diverse and dynamic art ecology. This exhibition is thus also, by implication, about (re-)claiming space for different types of contemporary art, at a time when the terrain for contemporary art appears to be contracting in Jamaica, and about asserting the validity and importance of those artistic approaches that do not conform to dominant expectations.

To return to the question of opacity, and the apprehension this causes in many viewers: in Petrona Morrison’s exhibition this usually dissipates quickly when visitors are engaged in conversation with the artist or myself, although these conversations merely provide some insights, a point of entry, and not the definitive explanation some may have expected. While it takes some effort to unpack it, and a willingness to accept that not everything can be explained, the content of the exhibition is actually quite relatable, as much of it is couched in current debates and relevant to the personal experiences of many visitors. Many stimulating conversations have already been had in the exhibition and it is a pleasure to see visitors opening up about how the exhibition speaks to them, with significant room for personal interpretation. Chances are that this would not have happened if the art works on view delivered their content in a more obvious and prescribed way.

The body of work presented in this exhibition follows and builds on a previous project by Petrona Morrison in which she explored the cultural and political implications of the “selfie,” and the various (self-)imposed conventions and acts of staging and self-fashioning involved. This time around, the  point of departure was the recent debate about NIDS, Jamaica’s proposed national ID system and the accompanying draft legislation, which among other provided for collecting blood samples, DNA, and vein and skin prints, as possible means of recording and identifying individuals, far beyond the customary biodata and photographs. Much of the controversy revolved around privacy rights, and the draconian proposed penalties and denial of state services for those who failed, or did not wish to become part of this system.

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From the Archives: Ken Abendana Spencer (1929-2005)

empty-art-gallery-in-museum

Here is another excerpt from my doctoral dissertation, “Between Nation and Market: Art and Society in Twentieth Century Jamaica” (Emory, 2011), which is taken from a section which explores how artists in Jamaica have marketed their work – (C) Veerle Poupeye, all rights reserved.

The post is not illustrated, as I was unable to get permissions from the Spencer estate in a timely manner at the time of submitting my dissertation and am not able to pursue this solely for the purpose of this impromptu post. Reproductions of Ken Spencer’s work are however widely available online and I encourage readers to search and peruse these.

[There are a number of] Jamaican artists who have devised effective individual marketing strategies and acquired significant wealth in the process. Barrington Watson, as we have seen, has controlled the promotion and pricing of his work by operating his own galleries. His friend and contemporary Ken [Abendana] Spencer (1929-2005), who peddled his works to locals, expatriates and tourists, was a more extreme example.[1]

Spencer started out selling his sketches on a street corner in Downtown Kingston. He joined Barrington Watson in London in 1952 but did not study art there, as Watson had hoped. Instead he started selling his works directly to Jamaican professionals who were hungry for reminders of home. (Greenland 2006) On returning to Jamaica, he continued this direct marketing strategy and Watson remembered that “he would go around the island in a car, and sell his work in Montego Bay and Negril. He would put a bunch of works into a car and his idea was to come back with none” (Ibid.). He personally visited potential buyers, many of them first-time art buyers, and often left the hesitant with a stack of paintings to ponder, to come back a few days later to an almost guaranteed sale (Moo Young 2006). His paintings can be seen in many hotel and bank lobbies, the offices of doctors, dentists and other professionals, and middle class homes.

Most of Spencer’s works represent “traditional” Jamaican subject matter, such as market women and mento musicians – reassuring images of “Old Time Jamaica,” as one contributor to his obituary put it (Greenland 2006). They are painted in a recognizable, confident gestural style: typically, the image is invoked by just a few broad brush or palette knife strokes and set against a monochrome background, often the white gesso undercoating of the canvas. [His large, prominently placed and curvilinear signature served as his trademark.] Spencer’s sketchy semi-abstract style – which in itself challenges the assumption that Jamaican audiences do not respond to abstraction – also reflected his goal to produce and sell as many works as possible. He reputedly worked on several canvases simultaneously, which were lined up so that he would not have to clean off his brushes to change colors, and thus saved time and paints. (Moo Young 2006) He also once told David Boxer that a painting was not economical if it took more than 30 minutes to complete – the sort of stories that horrified “knowing” art lovers in Jamaica.[2]

Spencer’s expansive, jovial personality played a crucial role in his sales and he cultivated his image as a notorious eccentric. He lived in Portland in a self-designed, six-storied castle and willingly entertained local and tourist visitors there, although it was implied that works would be bought. Spencer also frequented the New Kingston hotel bars in search of sales. The art dealer and framer Herman van Asbroeck tells a story that illustrates Spencer’s ingenious “traveling salesman” tactics:

A year ago a man came into the shop and put a Ken Spencer on the desk. He wanted to have it framed. I asked him: ‘You bought a Ken Spencer?’ And he replied: ‘No, I won it!’ Apparently, he had come to Kingston for a builder’s conference and a group of them had gone out for a drink. They ended up in the Hilton at 2:00 a.m. Suddenly a gentleman approached their table and asked if they wanted to play a game. He told them he had a number in his pocket and then he marked out cards 1 to 5. Everyone took a number and the customer in my shop was the winner. Then Ken Spencer introduced himself. By the end of the night, all the people at the table had bought paintings! (Greenland 2006)

These anecdotes, also, marked Spencer as one who was not a “serious” artist.

While he occasionally produced more ambitious works, Spencer was not an artist who strove to produce “masterpieces” but one who deliberately produced generic paintings that were recognizably “a Ken Spencer.” [He] did not significantly pressure local cultural institutions for public recognition and never had an exhibition in a gallery.[3] When asked why, he claimed that he did not need such exposure because all of Jamaica was his gallery (Moo Young 2006). His sense of achievement thus came from the prevalence of his work in the Jamaican environment. Others, however, took up his cause and already during his lifetime there were heated arguments within the art community about Spencer’s artistic merits and the NGJ’s neglect of his work was cited as evidence of the elitism of the Jamaican art establishment.

Spencer was an undeniably gifted painter and the local popularity of his work is a cultural phenomenon that warrants its own recognition. The recent attempts at inserting him into the national canons, however, obscure that had he handled his work differently, he could certainly have been a recognized member of the post-Independence mainstream. Spencer was unapologetic about being primarily motivated by economic gain and opted to disregard the processes by which artistic worth is conventionally determined. He thus represents an instructive counterpart to those contemporary artists who resist the forces of the market and, despite the fact that he had far less to say, succeeded where they have failed by reaching deep into Jamaican society. Spencer’s choices also separate him from Barrington Watson, who used more conventional art sales methods and always asserted the “high art” status of his work. While Watson’s exact position in the local art hierarchies has been contentious, his inclusion in the national canons is quite secure, unlike Spencer whose chances at consecration as a “Jamaican master” will always be tenuous, because he broke the codes of “high art” in his pursuit of commercial success.

Endnotes

[1] He was commonly known as Ken Abendana Spencer during his lifetime but the lawyers responsible for his estate insist that his legal name was “Kenneth Abondarno Spencer” (Forth Blake 2006).

[2] Personal communication, David Boxer, January 11, 2006.

[3] The NGJ owns three Spencers but none are on permanent display. One of these works was transferred from the IoJ collection in 1974 and the other two were part of a major donation by the then Chairman of the NGJ Aaron Matalon in 1999, which sought to address lacunas in the NGJ’s collection. While there may have been other expressions of discontent on Spencer’s part, I know of only one incident, a year or two before he died, when he complained to the NGJ Registrar about not being adequately represented in the NGJ’s collection (personal communication, Roxanne Silent, Registrar, NGJ, March 12, 2008).

SOURCES

Greenland, Jonathan. “Remembering Ken Spencer.” Gleaner, February 19, 2006, F1-2

Moo Young, Howard. “Jamaica Is My Gallery.” Gleaner, February 19, 2006, F1